Review: The March on Russia, Orange Tree Theatre ‘A Terrific Tiny Tragedy’

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So good is this revival of David Storey’s The March on Russia, and so well-observed is David’s depiction of a couple celebrating their sixtieth wedding anniversary, that even though this play is almost thirty years old, I felt, for extended moments, I could have been watching scenes from the present day, even from my own life.

For in Mr and Mrs Passmore (Ian Gelder and Sue Wallace) David has created a couple whose emotions and actions seem familiar and ever-relevant. Their anniversary sees them connected more through co-dependency, obligation and routine rather than the joys of marital bliss. There’s more bitterness than affection to their interchanges, a perpetual sense of disappointment that each has in the other, and a lingering sense of regret.

It isn’t a particularly happy anniversary – one it seems that must be endured for the sake of their three children (Colin Tierney, Sarah Belcher and Connie Walker) who have turned up at the bungalow to mark the occasion with their parents. But the presence of the children seems only to exacerbate the situation further.

That is because each has had a profound social inheritance, their independent successful lives as writers, politicians and mothers a far cry from the back-breaking labour of their parent’s generation who sacrificed their health, (fifty years in the coalmines), and their own happiness to scrimp what little they had together to ensure their kids benefitted from opportunities that they could never have. And there is more than a little stored resentment over that too.

This is a subtle drama – there is no great revelation or sudden shock that ruptures this family reunion – but it is certainly no less affecting because of it. Instead, the focus is on the tiny tragedy of disappointed lives.

Yet there is something tantalising in the fact that you sense that there could well be much more that is being left unsaid, that David Storey is capturing a sense that not all the cards have been placed on the table here, that this is deliberately not a great reckoning for he is observing that fact that, for many of us, to bring on such drama on would only hurt ourselves and those we care for more than we could possibly bear to live with. So, we continue on in a suffocating stifled silence.

As much as change on a personal level, there is also that sense of change in the world outside. There are barbs on socialism and capitalism – all no doubt affected by the background of Thatcherism both in the play’s setting and the period in which it was written – but it also adds to that insecurity for the parents, that this is a world that is a far cry from the one that they grew up in. That there is a fear and need to hold on to the past to somehow deal with the rapid changes all around them.

It certainly hit me that we don’t see plays like this anymore, and I don’t mean only in the quiet realism sense. It didn’t pass me by that the last time I saw Northern working-class lives captured on stage with this level of affection and focus was also in a revival – that of John Tiffany’s Road at the Royal Court. Other than that, it’s pretty barren. I feel that speaks volumes about the challenges we still face in theatre today, and our need to ensure all lives and backgrounds are represented faithfully.

And also, how refreshing to see older lives at the heart of a play, rather than at the periphery or overlooked completely. For all the diversity challenges we face, it shouldn’t be forgotten that age is a factor too.

All of the above therefore certainly makes this revival worth seeing. It seems that the Orange Tree can’t put a foot wrong these days and that continues here. Alice Hamilton’s direction is on the money all the way through with terrific pacing and a great use of space.

And, it must be said, Ian Gelder and Sue Wallace are spellbindingly good as the parents. Their interchanges are sparky, and they bring so much light and shade to the piece, wringing out as much humour in their lines as sadness. And those moments in their reminisces where the brief spark of a memory of life, passion and fun flashes in their eyes… Ah, it cuts like a knife.  

Orange Tree Theatre, Richmond, to October 7, 2017
Tickets from £12
All production images by Helen Maybanks

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